Haitian Novelist Edwidge Danticat: Earthquake "Like the Abyss of Long, Painful History of Natural and Political Disasters"

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: The Caribbean nation of Haiti has been devastated by a massive 7.0-magnitude earthquake, causing what's being described as a catastrophe of major proportions.

The extent of the disaster is still unclear, but there are fears thousands of people may have died and tens of thousands lost their homes. In the capital Port-au-Prince, a city of two million people, thousands of buildings were damaged or destroyed, including hospitals, schools and hotels. The United Nations headquarters was also reported to be severely damaged, and many of its staff are reported missing.

The earthquake struck about ten miles southwest of the capital at around 5:00 p.m. on Tuesday. It was the strongest earthquake to hit Haiti in more than two centuries. It was followed by at least twenty-seven aftershocks, the largest two of which were 5.9 and 5.5 in magnitude. The quake prompted a tsunami alert for parts of the Caribbean that was later canceled.

For hours after the quake, the air was filled with a choking dust from the debris of fallen buildings. People were heard screaming for help throughout the city. A Food for the Poor charity worker in Port-au-Prince told Reuters, quote, "There are people running, crying, screaming. People are trying to dig victims out with flashlights. I think hundreds of casualties would be a serious understatement."

AMY GOODMAN: The historic National Palace has also been severely damaged. President René Préval and his wife are both reported to be alive. A number of nations, including the US, Britain, Venezuela and other Latin American countries, are gearing up to send aid.

Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere and has suffered a number of recent disasters, including four hurricanes and storms in 2008 that killed hundreds.

Kim Ives is with us here. He's a journalist with the newspaper Haiti Liberté. He's joining us here in our studios in New York.

Edwidge Danticat is a Haitian American novelist. Her books include Brother, I'm Dying. It tells the story of her uncle dying in immigration detention in Miami. She joins us from Miami. We want to go now to Edwidge.

We welcome you. Our condolences on your country and what it is going through right now. Can you start off by telling us what you have heard from your own family in Haiti?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Thank you so much, Amy. Thank you for the opportunity to be here.

I have heard very little from my own family, who is -- the relatives that I have in Port-au-Prince. I have not heard -- we've not heard from any one of our family members in Carrefour or in Bel Air. So we're just watching sort of the news footage and trying to piece together, you know, things approximately where they are there. So we've had no contact.

The good news is, we've had some contact with our family that's outside of Port-au-Prince. We spoke last night to my mother-in-law, who's in Cavaillon, which is outside of Les Cayes. And even as we were speaking to her about 10:30, she kept saying, "The ground is shaking, the ground is shaking." But she was fine, and her neighbors were fine. They did not have any damage there. But it's a very different and frightening picture in Port-au-Prince, for we have not had news there.

AMY GOODMAN: Kim Ives, you've got your computer on the table. You've been following tweets as we've begun this show. What are you learning about what's happening now in Port-au-Prince, which many are saying has been leveled?

KIM IVES: Yes, it's apocalyptic. This is definitely the greatest tragedy that has befallen a tragedy-beset country. It's just unimaginable, the destruction -- the roads, buildings, houses. And one has to think, I mean, so much of the construction is done in just concrete without any steel rebar reinforcement. Last year a school collapsed just by itself. And so, you can imagine, with a 7.0 earthquake, what's happening.

AMY GOODMAN: That school was in Pétionville --

KIM IVES: That's correct.

AMY GOODMAN: -- which is in a wealthy suburb of Port-au-Prince up on a hill. And that's where they said yesterday the first hospital collapsed.

KIM IVES: Yes, I think many of the buildings in that area, especially in the hilly areas where, you know, houses, like in much of Latin America, in many of the cities, are built in giant bowls of houses on top of each other. And last night, most of the radio stations in Haiti were out of commission, but there was an internet television that was on. People were calling into that, and people were describing firsthand how houses had fallen on their house, and their family had been killed inside.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And what do you understand is the scope of the devastation? It is very hard to get reports from the ground right now, but we've heard the UN building was severely damaged, and so was the National Palace. But also, thousands of buildings have reportedly been damaged or collapsed.

KIM IVES: Well, the Hotel Christopher, which is where the UN mission to stabilize Haiti, the UN occupation force, was headquartered, collapsed. The Montana Hotel, which was the principal foreign journalist hotel up in Pétionville, collapsed. The palace collapsed, the general hospital. The cathedral, the roof fell off it. I mean, this is - -these are a century of architecture -- two centuries has just been wiped out in this disaster.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: There's also been a report that the UN security chief has been killed. It was just breaking on Al Jazeera before we went to air today.

KIM IVES: I didn't hear that, but I know dozens and dozens of UN workers are missing. And Jacmel was also very severely hit. We heard from some contacts in Jacmel that total devastation there. Again, that's just on the backside of the earthquake, which was right in the rim of mountains between Port-au-Prince and Jacmel.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And describe for viewers and listeners what Port-au-Prince is like. This is a city of two million people. Paint a picture of the city and of Haiti.

KIM IVES: Well, a minimum of two million, probably more like three million. I mean, due to US economic policies over the past three decades, millions of people have been pushed out of the countryside into the cities, where they live in makeshift shacks built up on usually state land along the perimeters of the city. It is usually shacks, you know, cinderblocks, tin, sometimes straw. And they very easily fall down in something like this.

AMY GOODMAN: Edwidge Danticat, Kim just alluded to something more than the natural catastrophe that we're seeing today, which was the very fragile politics of Haiti and what has devastated the country for so long. Could you give us a brief history of your country, founded in 1804, the first black republic in the western hemisphere born of a slave uprising?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Well, that's a very wonderful place to start on a day like this. Indeed, the first black republic in this hemisphere, one of the first two republics in this hemisphere. But soon after independence, was not recognized by its neighbors, which it nevertheless helped gain, in some cases, their independence in Latin America and helped the US fight here in Savannah, Georgia. And then a series of debt, because it had to pay to France a large amount of money for its independence. And then two US invasion occupations and a series of dictatorships. It's been -- you know, before and in the midst of this, you know, deforestation sponsored by outside interests, and just a series of a very painful history.

But -- and add to that all the other natural disasters -- four storms last year, the tropical storm Jeanne a couple of years ago, which covered the town of Gonaives. But nothing, I think, like today. Nothing -- you know, this is something -- this is really the big one. This is what -- people have talked about this, because we would look at these houses on the hillsides. You would look at some neighborhoods that -- like Kim was talking about, with the shacks and the overpopulation in Port-au-Prince, but never imagined this. And add to this some fires that we've seen in the footage that we've seen of Port-au-Prince of the cathedral. You know, I can see parts of my old neighborhood, you know, through this very large veil of fire. So it's really -- it's totally unimaginable. It seems like the abyss of a very long and painful history of natural and political disasters.


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